Although the word "boycott" did not come into existence until 1880, organized refusals to purchase goods, participate in activities, or deal with a person, group, or country as a form of protest are much older. One of the most inspiring to me was begun by Elizabeth Heyrick and Susannah Watts, Quaker women living in Leicester, England. Going door to door, they launched a national campaign to boycott goods made by slave labor, focusing on West Indian sugar. They compiled and publicized a national list of those who had pledged to stop using slave produced sugar. Grocers stopped selling it, and promoted East Indian sugar instead. At the height of the boycott, 400,000 people stopped using West Indian sugar. In the United States, a similar boycott led to "free produce" stores that sold only goods produced without slave labor. The boycott didn't destroy the West Indian sugar economy. It wasn't intended to. It was a way to bring the issue of slavery into people's homes, to literally place it on the table, and then offer them a specific action to take, a way to interrupt business as usual and declare their non-cooperation. Taking a moral stand against slavery, even symbolically, changed them, and it changed the conversation. It made the drinking of tea a political act. Either you spooned human suffering into your cup, or you refused to.
My brother Ricardo likes to say that there are two kinds of organizers, those who understand that storytelling is at the center of all good organizing, and the ones who haven't figured it out yet.
It's been a deep frustration to me for most of my activist life, that so many movement organizations fail to understand the power of art to change the way people perceive the world. The purpose of organizing is to change consciousness, to change what people imagine to be possible, so they can go out and make it happen. Radical artists are experts in changing culture, challenging official stories, exposing suppressed truths, creating culture that brims with possibility. We know how to listen to stories and how to tell them.
But much of the time, we're called upon to sweeten up a dry polemic, publicize and illustrate campaigns we're not asked to help design, perform at fundraisers, and make the poster for the event. Art is seen as a "tool," not a core strategy of transformation. Most of the time, artists aren't brought in for serious discussions about how to change beliefs, how to shift people and win them over, how to open up new avenues.
One obvious sign of this is the shortage of thoughtful slogans, chants and songs at protests. What we write on our signs, chant in the streets, and join our voices to sing should be composed with our strategic goals and deepest values in mind, and honed with all the artistry of which we are capable, so they can do their real job: change consciousness, and move people to think, feel, question, act. Artists need to be among the core strategists of all our movements, shaping our work, not just decorating it.
Last fall, I got to spend the weekend with around forty mostly Jewish artist-activists who came together to do just that. Jewish Voice for Peace invited us to the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Connecticut to create the organization's Artists' Council and start mapping out the work of changing the dominant narratives about Israel/Palestine, and also about Jewish identity in the 21st century.
It was an intense and joyous few days, spent grappling with how best to apply both our artistic talents and our political insight to the interwoven tasks of supporting Palestinian liberation and challenging the right wing domination of U.S. Jewish life. It's the kind of group every smart movement should be convening, and I've been agitating for something like it for decades.
Many things happened there which will lead to a lot of inspiring work in the coming months, and hopefully years, and I look forward to telling you about it.
When I was twenty, I spent several weeks of my poetic translation tutorial wrestling a Neruda poem into English, a word at a time. “Abejas II” begins, “There is a cemetery of bees...” and ends,
“there they arrive one by one,
a million with another million,
all the bees arrive to die
until the earth is covered
in great yellow mountains.
I will never forget their fragrance.”
In 1974, thinking about mountains of dead bees in their millions was a metaphor, devoid of horror. In Neruda’s imagination, they were dying of sweetness, not neonictinoids. Gigantic corporations didn’t call them thieves for gathering their yellow grains of genetic code, in violation of trade monopolies, and scattering them across property lines in violation of privatization.
Their fragrant expiring didn’t signal the fracture of the natural world, famines,
crop failures, barren gardens. This summer the squashes in my garden bloomed, but never made fruit. I saw only one large bumblebee all summer, in spite of all the offerings we planted, and their absence filled me with fear.
My brother Ricardo has pointed out to me how so many of the online campaigns to save the bees focus on the work they do for us, as if we were the privileged rich and they were an exploited immigrant nation, toiling in our fields to fertilize the dinner table, worthy of saving only so that we can eat.
But the bees are their own golden beings, orbiting their flowering planet. I remember them, traveling the paths of the air, spiraling in slow grace through the pollen dusted petals of nasturtiums, hibiscus, gladioli, or in bullet fast furious beeline, spending their rough bright bodies in defense of the hive. How the intricate calligraphy of their dancing unfurled across the morning like a scroll, how they were not there for us, but with us, how they spread fertility to orchards, wildflowers, and inedible shrubs, without regard for our hungers.
They are a shining strand in the web of ecology, whose unraveling dooms us. They are sovereign nations facing extinction, and we have been here before. We must be their underground railroad, their sanctuary movement, their solidarity committee, blocking the roads that lead to their massacre, not because they could make the squash blossoms bear fruit, though that is part of their beauty, but because they exist, and like us, are being driven unjustly to their deaths.
How can I sleep? When I close my eyes, there is fire everywhere. The doctors who go among the wounded and dead in Gaza say they believe the Israeli military is using DIME weapons, Dense Inert Metal Explosives. These bombs explode into clouds of micro-shrapnel, fill the flesh of those within range with tiny particles of tungsten and nickel, heavy metals contaminating the injured, so that those who are not killed outright, who survive, perhaps with severed limbs, are infested with microscopic time bombs of cancer--of the connective tissue. They are shredding the webs of people's bodies.
A few nights ago, my father and I sat in front of my laptop computer and watched, with many other members of Jewish Voice for Peace, as the Presbyterian Church voted to divest from three U.S. companies who directly participate in and profit from the occupation; who make money from surveillance, repression, and the destruction of Palestinian homes and communities. The plan approved by the Presbyterian assembly also commits the church to positive investments and active efforts toward reconciliation. It is the product of a ten year process of soul searching, gathering information, and listening to other people about what we believe needs to happen. Jewish Voice for Peace, of which I am a proud member, and on whose advisory board I sit, has played an powerful part in that process. I believe that acts like this one help to create a necessary moral crisis, in which business as usual becomes intolerable to larger and larger numbers of people.
My first thought is that I know what is happening to those girls. I, too, was taken from my school and raped by many men. But it wasn’t with guns and bombs, I wasn’t taken from my family, and I wasn’t sold into slavery in another country. It wasn’t in the name of religious law. The men who took me were in it for greed and power, and didn’t care if I studied. Still, my body aches with the physical memory.
The second thought is how heavily imperialism grinds down onto the bodies of girls, how the news is written in layers, so that these teenagers being forced into the backs of trucks are superimposed onto a map of the partition of Africa into national portions of profit for gluttonous European elites, slashing national borders across, through, around the names people call themselves.
Returning to the United States from Cuba always feels like time travel to me. I've been to a different century, and when I come back and try to explain my experiences to people, to tell them what I saw, how I interacted with the people of another time, no one understands or believes me.
The fragments of the story may register: no ads on tv or on the streets, universal health care, free higher education, but what they mean in people's lives, what they add up to, what it feels like to take that for granted, doesn't. And without the visceral understanding of what Cubans have gained, there's no truthful context for the hardships, the mistakes, the struggles of daily life.
One of the advantages of growing up in a multi-generation radical family is the way history inhabits our bones. During the last century, my family has openly defied the oppressive policies of the Russian Tsar, the Spanish crown, the U.S. government, the colonial government of Puerto Rico, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the FBI, and the Chicago police; resisted the US invasion of Puerto Rico, union busting, segregation, evictions, sexism, classism and racism in higher education, and police brutality; organized garment workers, unemployed women, rural coffee workers, hospital workers, women's consciousness raising groups, rebel radio shows, art collectives, radical theater groups, Jewish peace activists, tenant strikes and antiwar teach ins, for access to birth control and the right to unionize; agitated on behalf of the wrongly imprisoned, the exiled and the assassinated in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, from the Scottsboro Boys to Cece MacDonald, from Sacco and Vanzetti to Archbishop Romero, the Chicago Eight to the Cuban Five; supported people struggling to build just societies in Cuba, Viet Nam, Chile, Mozambique, Nicaragua, South Africa, and everywhere else, and opposed wars in Europe, Southeast Asia, Central America, the Persian Gulf, Southern Africa and the Middle East. We have inherited a broad, visceral experience of radicalism.
One of the most devastating effects of ongoing trauma, especially the society-wide traumas of oppression and war, is that it becomes normalized to the point that it begins to seem inevitable, natural, and those who insist otherwise come to be seen as naive. Of course there are vested interests in making it appear that it's human nature to slaughter each other for control of land, water, oil, just as slaveholders made elaborate pseudoscientific arguments for enslavement as part of the natural order of things.
Becky, Debra Shultz and Me at gender seminar, c.1994
I first met Becky Logan in February, 1993, at a five day residential graduate school seminar in Washington, D.C., called The Worker and Her Writing. It was led by writer and activist Minnie Bruce Pratt and Pat Murphy, a vocational rehabilitation counselor with expertise on questions of women and money, work and violence. In my evaluation, I wrote "This seminar was probably the best formal learning experience I have ever had. It was purposefully and thoughtfully designed to create an atmosphere in which profoundly meaningful conversations could take place about our work as women... It was deeply empowering and I formed relationships I expect will last for many years."
Aurora Levins Morales is a disabled and chronically ill, community supported writer, historian, artist and activist. It takes a village to keep her blogs coming. To become part of the village it takes, donate here.